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County Home, Stranorlar, Co. Donegal, Republic of Ireland

The Stranorlar County Home had its roots in the Stranorlar Union Workhouse, erected in 1845 on a seven-acre site on Lifford Road, about a mile to the east of Stranorlar. Like almost all Irish workhouses, the original buildings were designed by George Wilkinson. There was a small entrance block, nearest to the road. The main accommodation block had the Master and Matron's's quarters at the centre, with male and female wings to each side. A single-storey range containing the kitchen and laundry then linked via the dining-hall and chapel to the infirmary and 'idiots wards' at the rear of the complex. The buildings were intended to accommodate up to 400 inmates. During the famine era, a fever hospital was erected at the north of the site, beyond which lay the workhouse's burial ground.

The Stranorlar workhouse site is shown on the 1907 map below.

Stranorlar workhouse site, Stranorlar, c.1907.

George Wilkinson's model Irish workhouse design. © Peter Higginbotham

From 1899, the Sisters of Mercy provided the nursing staff in the workhouse infirmary.

Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, the Boards of Guardians that administered each union area were abolished and the government appointed commissioners to overhaul the existing poor relief system and formulate a county-based plan for its future administration and operation. Boards of Public Assistance and Boards of Health were formed in each county and the existing workhouse sites allocated to new roles. In most cases, the main building in one of the county's former workhouses was adopted as a County Home, accommodating the elderly poor and infirm, the disabled, and people with various mental conditions, referred to at that time as 'lunatics', 'idiots' and 'imbeciles'. County Homes were frequently also used to house unmarried mothers and their children, and some admitted orphaned or abandoned children. Many former workhouse infirmaries, fever hospitals and other medical facilities were redesignated as County, District, Cottage or Fever Hospitals. The county schemes were formalised by Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act of 1923. In County Donegal, also referred to as Tirconaill, the Stranorlar workhouse became the County Home.

In May 1924, the Matron reported that Stranorlar home was 'very congested', and that there was 'little available room for children'. In November 1924, a member of the county's Boar of Health raised the question of the overcrowding and proposed that the disused workhouse at Ballyshannon be used as an auxiliary home, with the question of which 'class' should be transferred there being left to the Minister at the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) to decide. In March 1925, an inspector from the Department visited Stranorlar and recommended the immediate removal of children from the institution because 'the contact with other inmates will have a very bad effect on their health, both bodily and mentally'. The Minister suggested, as a temporary expedient, the removal of all infants and mothers to the Ballyshannon premises. However, the Board of Health rejected the proposal and subsequently decided that the illegitimate children should be boarded out but only in cases 'where this course is not objectionable to the mothers'. In addition, the DLGPH also directed that boarded-out children whose mothers were alive and not resident in the County Home should be boarded out as far as possible from the district in which the mother resided, except in cases where contributed to the support of the child. Otherwise, it was suggested, the mother would give constant trouble to the foster parents.

In 1925, continued overcrowding in the County Home led to renewed consideration by the Board of Health of the removal of unmarried mothers and their children to other accommodation. However, it was realised that unmarried mothers undertook most of the work in home and if they were removed a large number of staff would have to be employed to replace them. One member of the Board calculated that the transfer of women and children would cost up to £1,000 and another argued that the transfer would in effect create two County Homes. Little action appears to have been taken to reduce the overcrowding. In January 1925, 29 single mothers and 51 'illegitimate' children were living there. By December, numbers had increased to 36 women and 56 children. Overall occupancy in the home had increased from 275 to 292

A report on Donegal's county scheme in 1927 painted a depressing picture of the home:

The water supply is bad. The closet accommodation is very defective. In the old infirmary part of the Home there are two flush closets, in what was the body of the house there are none, and the contrivances in the yards are very bad and rather revolting. On the female side there appears to be no classification; the old women, the lunatics and imbeciles, and the unmarried mothers, are all together. There were about 50 children in the Home, about half of them over three years of age. The accommodation in the County Home is fully occupied and at times overcrowded.

The report suggested that the removal of the lunatics, imbeciles, unmarried mothers, and children from the home would be the 'proper solution'.

A report by the Board of Health in the same year recorded that:

The sanitary arrangements are very defective. Barrow privies. There are 2 w.c.'s in the infirmary and one bad bath on each side. The condition of this Home is most unsatisfactory owing to the absence of proper sanitary arrangements and drainage... The beds and mattresses are mostly broken and dilapidated not fitting the floors where the old central trench still remains. The upper dormitories are unceiled and not heated. A new ward reconstructed out of an old store is the only pleasant-looking spot in the Institution. Lockers are required here. In the Fever Block which now accommodates the old men the ceilings are falling, and the walls are stained and broken. There is no disinfecting apparatus. With regard to the condition of the children some improvement has been made. In my last report, I drew attention to their dismal plight. Since then an Army hut has been erected to serve as a Day Room, and an old school room serves them for sleeping accommodation. Much more, however, needs to be done.

A report on the home's water supply, which came from four wells, found that it was 'grossly polluted with sewage or manurial matter' and 'other animal organic matter'. Some improvement came in 1927 when a new well with an electric pump was provided. Tests on the home's milk supply found that it was often below legal standards. Analysis of bread supplied to the home was made with low grade flour and had material such as ash and cellulose added. Meat supplied to the home was also of variable quality and sometimes found to be rancid. A DLGPH report in 1926 found that cooking arrangements at the home were 'bad' and recommended that a suitable kitchen be provided.

The diet for female patients, unmarried mothers and children living in Stranorlar county home was as follows:

Breakfast8 a.m.6 oz. Bread, 1 oz. margarine, 1 pint tea.
Dinner 1 p.m. 4 oz. beef or mutton, 2 lb. potatoes, vegetables.
Tea3 p.m.4 oz. bread, 0.5 pint tea, 0.5 oz. margarine.
Supper1 pint porridge, 1 pint milk.

In 1924, the DLGPH decreed that the amount of food given to residents was 'too excessive' and ordered its reduction to bring it in line with other County Homes. The main effect of the order appears to have been a reduction from four to three meals a day.

DLGPH reports on the home regularly criticised its 'primitive laundry arrangements', especially the complete lack of disinfecting facilities. Old rugs, blankets and sheets were frequently removed from the infirmary and reused for 'nursery purposes', clearly putting young children in danger of cross-infection.

In 1930, the home suffered multiple outbreaks of typhoid, the worst being in September when twelve women contracted the disease, three of whom died. The blame was eventually placed on blocked drains on the women's side of the home, which had caused a build-up of excrement and other effluent. In the same year, of the 37 infants admitted or born at the home, 23 died there.

A DLGPH report in 1933 noted that the board of health had made no effort to provide suitable laundry or disinfecting equipment at the home. There had also been no improvements to the maternity ward, which was 'very small and had no equipment'. In 1934, it was reported that the wards in the home were unceiled and without central heating so were extremely cold in winter and posed a danger to the elderly and to mothers and children in the nursery. In 1935, the home's lack of accommodation, bathrooms or even wash basins with running water, led to the home's obstetrician suspending his treatment of maternity cases there, with maternity patients instead being referred to District Hospitals in the county.

The poor state of the the building continued through the 1930s. The infant mortality rate improved a little on its peak of 68 per cent in 1930, but was said by the home's medical officer to average 50 per cent over the decade.

In September 1945, there home had 218 residents, including 39 children aged from 2 to 8 years. The nursery at that date was said to be very much overcrowded. In 1946-7, the Matron complained to the Board of Health that the nursery continued to be overcrowded and that the available floor space, ventilation and lavatory accommodation were 'wholly inadequate' to cater for the number of children living there. There were also no proper facilities for washing the children or for washing and drying their clothes.

In February 1848, a report by DLGPH inspector, Miss Alice Litster, recorded 27 unmarried mothers and 44 children were living at the home. Eighteen infants aged between one month and two years were housed in the nursery — a large room on the ground floor which had 'a stuffy atmosphere on entering'. It contained 18 wooden cots, with wooden slats, straw mattresses and adequate blankets. All but four of the infants appeared in god health. Six children aged between three weeks and 13 years were housed in the maternity ward. The remaining 20 children, aged between 13 months and 13 years, were in 'the Hut', a long wooden structure in the yard. It was heated by a centrally placed stove, was 'stuffy and unpleasant' and carried 'a strong odour of humanity'. Among this group, two boys aged 12 and 13 years were classed as 'mental defectives' and just two children were assessed as being suitable for boarding out. Of the remaining children, some were suffering from scabies; some could not, or made no attempt to, stand or walk; one suffered a prolapsed rectum; two were deemed to be mentally defective; two were returned by foster parents citing their 'dirty habits'; two were admitted by the NSPCC in a 'neglected condition'. The remaining children were reportedly 'not healthy-looking children'. There was no sanitary accommodation attached to the nursery or hut and that enamel chamber pots were kept there for the children's use.

In August 1949, the Department of Health (successor to the DLGPH) undertook a major programme of remedial and construction work at Stranorlar county home including the conversion of the old fever hospital into a new nursery. Other work included the replacement of doors and windows; plastering and distempering walls; fitting fireplaces in the mothers' ward; the installation of a bath, WC and hand basin in the children's ward and the installation of a wash hand basin in the labour ward.

A Department of Health inspection in May 1950 reported that accommodation for the unmarried mothers was of the 'usual dormitory' type with unplastered walls, uncovered ceilings and with no furniture other than beds. The children's accommodation was 'extremely crude' with unplastered walls, uncovered ceilings and no furniture other than wooden cots. The women's dining room was 'very bad' and the worst that the inspectors had seen in any institution. It noted that walls were unplastered, ceilings were rough and that there was 'a general atmosphere of gloom' made worse by overcrowding. The inspector also noted that unmarried women had no day room to use and 'seem to occupy themselves throughout the wards and other parts of the institution'. The inspector noted that the old fever hospital located behind the main institution was being renovated to accommodate unmarried mothers and children. This work was completed in January 1952.

In July 1952, Miss Litster reported that 26 single mothers (including six pregnant mothers) and 36 'illegitimate' children, aged from newborn to seven years, were living at the home. The children were now housed in a new nursery on the site of the old fever hospital and that nursing and pregnant mothers also had accommodation there. The dormitory for nursing mothers as 'a bright airy room' containing six beds with fibre mattresses. The room was 'clean, fresh and comfortable' and that separate lockers were provided for all beds. That babies did not sleep in this dormitory. The dormitory for pregnant mothers was also 'a bright airy room' containing six beds with Dunlopillo mattresses and with a locker beside each bed. It had a bathroom attached and a large press for coats. The post-natal ward contained four beds. By day, children were accommodated in a dining room equipped with an Aga cooker and milk in a pantry covered in enamel pails. The first floor of the new nursery contained 22 wooden and aluminium cots. The room was 'bright and airy', lit by seven windows and floored with linoleum. It was heated by an open turf fire.

Miss Litster reported that only pregnant and nursing mothers slept in the maternity and children's units and that mothers of babies who were not breast-fed and mothers of older children 'sleep in the main body of the County Home and work there'. These women were only allowed to visit their children on their day off (Sunday) and were afforded 'special visits' if the child was ill. The home's administrators claimed that more frequent visits 'caused disruption to routine' and resulted in 'quarrelling and a general upsetting of the children'. Miss Litster commented this arrangement did not foster a mother's affection for and interest in her child. However, if the eventual outcome was to be their complete separation, it was perhaps kinder to avoid the growth of affection. Nevertheless, the loss of maternal care might have some share in the mounting death rate.

In 1951, the Department of Health published proposals for the 'Reconstruction and Improvement of County Homes'. It recommended improved accommodation for the aged and infirm at the Stranorlar home and that new accommodation be provided for unmarried mothers and children on a separate site. While supporting the first of these, the county council disagreed with the latter proposal since the accommodation for such classes had been recently and substantially improved. Support for this view also came from the Matron of the home, who could not countenance the removal of unmarried mothers from the institution as she would not be able to procure female attendants to replace their labour.

During the 1950s, the Department of Health also pressed local authorities to increase their use of boarding out (fostering) for all suitable children in their care who were over the age of twelve months. By 1959, the picture at Stranorlar had markedly changed. A Department of Health inspection in October of that year recorded just one single mother and six children there at the time. Of the 56 children that had been discharged since June 1958, 58 per cent had gone home with parent or relative; 13 per cent had been boarded out; 12 per cent placed for adoption; 10 per cent transferred to an approved school, and 7 per cent transferred to a special hospital or institution. In October 1960, there was only one single mother and her ten-month-old infant living at the home, the woman said to be on the paid staff of the hospital. Small numbers of unmarried mothers continued to be admitted until as late as 1964.

The home closed in 1971 and all the old buildings were demolished and replaced by the St Joseph's Home (now St Joseph's Community Hospital) which was opened on 2 July 1973.

St Joseph's Hospital site from the south-east, 2002. © Peter Higginbotham

A former resident recalled entering the home in the early 1950s, when she was 16 years old and expecting a child. At the time, she had felt like an outcast, so was glad to enter the institution. 'To me it was home, it was a roof and a bite of meat and when I was in that situation you were happy to get that.' She worked in the home's the laundry where all the dirty nappies and all the dirty sheets from the hospital were washed. Her job was sluicing them at 6.45 a.m. under the cold tap outside before breakfast. Breakfast consisted of porridge, tea in an enamel mug and bread. Then it was back to the laundry, washing the clothes in big baths and they were put into two old-fashioned machines and one old-fashioned spinner. There were dryers in the back where the clothes were dried. Any of the girls who had children went up to the nursery, fed the children, changed them and put them to bed. Her job in the morning was to help the nurses to put up the babies bottles and make the cots. She got up at 6.30 a.m. and went to bed around 10 p.m. at night. In the morning, before going to the laundry, she went to get a bucket and scrubber, cloth and 'Licel' and went off to the body of the house to scrub the wards on her knees. The floors were scrubbed three days a week. When the wards were done, the bathrooms and toilets had to be scrubbed. On Wednesdays, large wooden commodes were carried downstairs to the yard and washed. The women were generally happy and used to have a good laugh. There would be great excitement when one of the girls would go off to have her baby and wanting to find out what it was. When a new girl came, they were dying to find out all about her. She used to listen to the wireless and loved dancing to it. Every Saturday night when 'Céílí House' was on the wireless they danced with the nurses, who were very nice. One day, she was scrubbing a dormitory and getting pains. One of the Sisters told her just to carry on as it would help her. They took her up to the nursery and put her in a big bath. She was in the nursery all evening. The baby died but she never got to see where it was buried. was then free to go home but didn't, as she was treated so badly there, so she was kept on as a staff member in the home, working in the hospital and earning a little money. The staff whey were good to the patients but the facilities were poor. What used to sicken her the most was that when the well-to-do would come in to adopt a baby. That just was the way it was then. The mothers at that stage did not have much choice. They had to stay in the home until the child was boarded out. Often their parents did not want them home, to have nothing to do with them. There were some children there until they were nine or ten years old — ones that would never have been adopted. It was home to so many people and times were very hard for everybody.

In the 1990s, a former Matron of the home wrote that:

...the County Home was envisaged as a 'no hope' or 'last resort' place and did not sit well with anyone who remembered it. Nor should it I suppose... Many who passed through the County Home had no one to care for them in their time of need and sadly some remained there until their dying day only to be buried in the unmarked graveyard behind what is now St Joseph's Hospital

In January 2021, Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation made its final report, which included an examination of the operation of the Stranorlar County Home.

For the period 1921 to 1964, the Commission identified 1,646 single expectant women and unmarried mothers who were admitted to the home. From 1921 to 1931, an average of 36 women were admitted each year. Admissions increased from 41 in 1931 to 59 in 1932 and for the rest of the decade 50 women on average entered the home annually. The busiest period was from 1942 to 1948, with 402 women entering the home in those seven years. Admissions peaked in 1948 when 71 women entered the home. Admissions began a fairly steady decline thereafter, falling from 49 admissions in 1949 to seven in 1960.

The women's ages ranged from 13 to 53 years. Most (75 per cent) were between 18 and 29 years old; 19 per cent were 30 years and older and 6 per cent were 17 or younger; 2.7 per cent of admissions were between 13 and 16 years of age.

The average length of stay decreased steadily from 266 days on average in the 1920s to 215 in the 1930s, 180 in the 1940s and 154 days in the 1950s. In the 1920s, single expectant women generally entered the home 47 days before giving birth. By the 1950s, this had fallen to 33 days.

In the 1920s, the majority of women (65.2 per cent) left the home within six months of giving birth and more one in four had left within 50 days. In the 1930s, the proportion leaving within six months of giving birth increased to 74.2 per cent; 23 per cent and close to one in three had left within 50 days. In the 1940s, 77.6 per cent left within six months of giving birth but the proportion leaving within 50 days decreased to 27.8 per cent. In the 1950s, most women (79.5%) left within six months of giving birth although the proportion leaving within 50 days had further reduced to 15.4 per cent.

A total of 1,777 'illegitimate' children were identified as being were either born in or admitted to the home. Births/admissions increased from 19 in 1921 to 61 in 1925 and generally remained within the 40-60 range from 1925 to 1943; an average of 49 births/admissions were recorded annually in this period. The busiest period for births/admissions was from 1944 to 1948. The number then declined steadily from a high of 80 in 1948 to just four in 1960.

The average length of stay was longest for children born/admitted in 1923 (342 days); 1957 (323 days); 1961 (317 days) and 1962 (314 days). Length of stay for children born/admitted in the years 1943 to 1951 appears to have been particularly long - children born/admitted in those years could expect to spent 227 days on average in the home.

The majority of children (57.0 per cent) left the home with their mother or another family member; 27.4 per cent were boarded out; 9.5 per cent transferred to other institutions — mostly to a Nazareth House in Derry, Belfast or Donegal; 4.2 per cent were placed at nurse; 1.3 per cent were legally adopted (post 1952) and 0.5 per cent were informally adopted (pre-953). The most common destination for unaccompanied children was boarding out followed by transfer to a specialist hospital, industrial school or Nazareth House. One child was placed for foreign adoption in the USA.

The Commission identified 343 child deaths associated with the home. Child mortality was relatively low in the early 1920s, with child deaths increasing from five in 1922 and 1923 to 19 in 1925. Mortality decreased in the late 1920s. The 1930s was the worst decade for child deaths, peaking in 1930 (22 deaths) and 1932 (18) although had decreased to four in 1937. Mortality began a staggered increase from 1938, peaking in 1944 (17 deaths) and 1947 (15); 89.5 per cent of child deaths at the home occurred before 1948. Mortality fell to two deaths in 1948, then after a small spike in the years 1950-52, fell to an average of two deaths annually. There were no child deaths in 1957-63. The leading cause of child deaths (60.5 per cent) was respiratory infections.

Mortality rates for infants (those dying before the age of one) were highest in the period 1925-35, peaking at 41.7 per cent in 1925, although at only 13.2 per cent in 1927. The rate decreased from 32.6 per cent in 1935 to 7.9 per cent in 1937, but then rose from 1938 (24.4 per cent) and remained relatively high until 1947 (23.4 per cent). The rate fell sharply in 1948 to just to 2.8 per cent then in the years up to 1956 fluctuated between a high of 17.5 per cent in 1951 to 0 per cent in 1953. From 1957 to 1964, just one infant died, following its transfer to another hospital.


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  • Donegal County Record Office, Three Rivers Centre, Lifford, County Donegal. Holdings related to the home include: Minutes of the Board of Health and Public Assistance (1922-42); County Manager's Orders (1942-98); County Medical Officer Annual Reports; County Council correspondence with Board of Health; County Home Paying orders and building plans (1946-53); Burial ground correspondence; Number of burials (1944-45); Board of Health Reports and Correspondence (1933-35).
  • Health Service Executive, Ireland. Holds the home's Indoor Registers (1921-94). Access arrangements unknown.